Ajatashatru (Ajātasattu; 492 to 460 BCE or early 4th century BCE) was a king of the Haryanka dynasty of Magadha in East India. He was the son of King Bimbisara and was a contemporary of both Mahavira (Nigantha Nataputta) and Gautama Buddha. He forcefully took over the kingdom of Magadha from his father and imprisoned him. He fought a war against Vajji, ruled by the Lichchhavis, and conquered the republic of Vesali.
Ajatashatru followed policies of conquest and expansion. He defeated his neighbours including the king of Kosala; his brothers, when at odds with him, went to Kashi, which had been given to Bimbisara as dowry. This led to a war between Magadha and Kosala. Ajatashatru occupied Kashi and captured the smaller kingdoms. Magadha under Ajatashatru became the most powerful kingdom in North India.
He is the inventor of two weapons used in war called rathamusala (Scythed chariot) and mahshilakantaka (engine for ejecting big stones).
Based on correlation with dates in the Mahavamsa and concluding that the Buddha died in 483 BC, A. L. Basham dated the accession of Ajatashatru to 491 BC. He estimates the first campaign of Ajatashatru to have taken place in 485 BC, and his second campaign against Vajjis in 481–480 BC. The Samannaphala Sutta states that Ajatashatru visited the six teachers to hear their doctrines and at last visited Buddha, an event Basham estimated to have taken place in 491 BC.
Ajatashatru, also known as Kunika, was the son of Bimbisara. The ancient inscription in Government Museum, Mathura refers to him as vaidehi putra Ajatashatru Kunika "Ajatashatru Kunika, the son of Vaidehi." The story of Ajatashatru is found in the Tripiṭaka of Buddhism and Jain Agamas. The account of Ajatashatru's birth is more or less similar in both the traditions. According to Jainism, Ajatashatru was born to King Bimbisara and Queen Chelna; Buddhist tradition records Ajatashatru being born to Bimbisara and Kosala Devi. It is worthwhile to note that both the queens were called "Vaidehi" in both the traditions.
According to the Jain Nirayavalika Sutra, during her pregnancy Queen Chelna had strong desire to eat fried flesh of her husband's heart and drink liquor. Meanwhile, the very intelligent Prince Abhayakumara, son of King Bimbisara and Queen Nanda, fried a wild fruit that resembled a heart and gave it to the queen. The queen ate it and later felt ashamed for having such a demonic desire and she feared that the child might grow up and prove fatal for the family, thus after a few months of the child being born, the queen had him thrown out of the palace. When the child was lying near the garbage dump, a cock bit his little finger. King Bimbisara, learning about the child being thrown out, ran outside and picked up the child and put its bleeding little finger in his mouth and sucked it until it stopped bleeding and continued this for days until it was healed. As the little finger of the child was sore, he was nicknamed Kunika "Sore Finger". Later he was named Asokacanda.
In the Buddhist Atthakatha, the above story is almost the same, except that Kosaladevi desired to drink blood from Bimbisara's arm; the king obliged her and, later, when the child was thrown near the garbage dump, due to an infection he got a boil on his little finger and the king sucked it and once while sucking it the boil burst inside the king's mouth, but due to affection for his child he did not spit the pus out, rather swallowed it.
Death of his father
The Jaina tradition
Once Ajatashatru was eating his meal with his newborn son in his lap, his son suddenly urinated, of which some drops fell onto his plate but due to affection for his child he did not change the plate but wiped the drops with his own patta (cloth on the shoulder) and continued to eat from the same plate. After eating a morsel he asked his mother Chellana, who was sitting in the same dining room, whether she had ever seen a father as loving and caring as he was, to which his mother narrated the story of King Bimbisara sucking Ajatshatru's little finger. This touched his heart and his affection for his father was aroused. At once he picked up an axe and hurried to the prison to free his father by breaking all the iron chains himself. But when Bimbisara saw him coming with an axe in his hand he thought, ... so, he is coming to kill me. It is better that I end my life with my own hands. At once he removed the Talaputa poison from his ring, closed his eyes and chanted "Kevli pannato Dhammam saranam pavajyami" (I seek refuge in the dharma taught by the kevlins or omniscient) and swallowed the poison and ended his life.
Ajatashatru repented a lot but it was of no use. Ajatashatru then moved his palace to Champa and made it his capital as the previous palace reminded him of his atrocious mistake.
The Buddhist tradition
There are different versions existing in Buddhist texts on the death of King Bimbisara.
In one version, Ajatashatru allowed no one but Kosala Devi to meet Bimbisara in the smokey cell. Ajatashatru wanted to starve him to death, as Devadatta had said: "father cannot be killed by a weapon." Thus Kosala Devi used to take small food packets to the cell, being caught by guards she started to take food hidden behind her hair, being caught again she started slipping in food by hiding it in her golden slippers again being caught she coated 4 layers of honey on her body which was licked by the king. When she was caught once again Ajatashatru prohibited Kosala Devi from meeting the king. When Ajatashatru saw that the king was not dying even then he ordered a barber to pierce the king's legs with a knife, then pour salt, hot oil and fire made from khaira wood on him. When this was done the king died.
In an alternate version, Ajatashatru had King Bimbisara imprisoned and tried to starve him to death. Kosala Devi took food to King Bimbisara, but was found out and stopped from visiting him any more. Bimbisara grew weak, but he derived comfort from looking at the mountain where the Buddha and his disciples resided. So Ajatashatru asked that his cell windows be covered so that King Bimbisara could not see the mountain. One day, the Buddha visited the city and Bimbisara could see him and his disciples through the holes in his door. Because Bimbisara saw Buddha and his disciples, he derived comfort and continued to live. After knowing this, Ajatashatru ordered that Bimbisara's feet be skinned. After this, King Bimbisara could not move, and so he lay in bed getting weaker.
Then one day, King Ajatashatru was having meal with his mother, Kosala Devi. He had a son, who was playing with a puppy. Ajatashatru asked, 'Where are you now?' The prince answered: "I am playing with the puppy." King Ajatashatru asked the prince to have meal together. The prince arrived, but did not want to eat. King Ajatashatru asked, 'Why do you not want to eat?' The prince said, 'If you let me have my meal together with my puppy, I will eat.' King Ajatashatru said, 'As you wish.' So the prince took his meal, and brought the meal for the puppy too.
King Ajatashatru told his mother,'I did a difficult thing. Why do I say that? I am a king, and because I love my son, I had my meal together with dogs.' The mother said, 'This is nothing difficult. Why do I say that? There are people who eat dog meat, so what is strange in giving food to dogs? Do you know that your father did difficult things?' Ajatashatru asked, 'What difficult things?' The mother said, 'When you were young, your finger was wounded. You could not sleep for nights because of the pain. Your father held you on his lap and sucked on your finger. Your father had a soft body, so you could sleep well. Because of the warmth of his mouth, your wound's pus broke out. Your father thought that if he spat out the pus, it would increase your pain, so he swallowed the pus. Your father did such difficult thing for you. Please release him.'
Ajatashatru stayed silent after hearing this. Kosala Devi thought that he had agreed to release his father, so the palace released this news. Everywhere in the city, people heard that Bimbisara was going to be released, so everyone was happy and went to jail saying. 'King Bimbisara is going to be released!' Bimbisara heard this and thought to himself,' My son is evil and has no compassion on me. I do not know what else he will do to hurt me.' After this thought, he killed himself in front of his bed. (From Vinaya)
War and victory over Vaishali
The feud between Ajatashatru and Licchavi (clan) during 484–468 BCE lead to defeat of latter.
The Jaina Tradition
Once Queen Padmavati, wife of Ajatashatru, was sitting in her balcony in the evening. She saw Halla and Vihalla kumaras with their wives sitting on Sechanaka elephant and one of the wives wearing the 18 fold divine necklace. Then she heard one of the maidservants speaking from the garden below "It's Halla and Vihalla kumaras and not the king who enjoy the real pleasures of the kingdom" and she thought "what's the use of the kingdom if I do not have both the jewels in my possession?"
So, she shared this thought with Ajatashatru the same night and became excessively insistent in her demand. Ajatashatru, at last, agreed and sent a request to both his brothers to give the elephant and the necklace to him, which both his brothers denied saying that these gifts were given by their dear father so why should they part from them? Ajatashatru sent the request thrice but got the same reply all three times. This annoyed him a lot, so he sent his men to arrest them. Meanwhile, Halla and the Vihalla kumaras availed a chance and escaped to their maternal grandfather Chetaka who was the king of the great kingdom of the Vaishali republic (Vajjis/Lichchavis). Ajatashatru sent notice thrice to Chetaka to surrender them but was denied by Chetaka.
This was enough for Ajatashatru. He called his half brothers, Kalakumaras (10 kalakumaras, those born to King Bimbisara and 10 Kali Queens Kali, Sukali, Mahakali, etc.) to merge their army with his, since it was well known to Ajatashatru that Vaishali republic had always been invincible in the past and he alone would not be able to defeat it. Each Kalakumara brought 3000 horses, 3000 elephants, 3000 chariots and 30000 infantrymen each. On the other hand, Chetaka invited his own allies 9 Mallas, 9 Lichhvis and 18 kings of Kasi-Kosala to fight his grandson Ajatashatru. All these kings came with 3000 horses, 3000 elephants, 3000 chariots and 30000 infantrymen each. Thus all together there were 57000 elephants, 57000 chariots, 57000 horses, and 570000 infantrymen.
The war began. King Chetaka was a devout follower of Lord Mahavira and had a vow to not shoot more than one arrow per day in a war. It was known to all that Chetaka's aim was perfect and his arrows were infallible. His first arrow killed one Kalakumara, commander of Ajatashatru. On the consecutive nine days the rest of the nine Kalakumaras were killed by Chetaka. Deeply sorrowed by the death of their sons, the Kali queens were initiated as nuns in the holy order of Lord Mahavira.
As Ajatashatru was moving towards defeat he practised penance for three days and offered prayers to Sakrendra and Charmendra (Indra of different heavens) who then helped him in the war. They protected him from the infallible arrow of Chetaka. The war became very severe and by the divine influence of the Indras even the pebbles, straws, leaves hurled by Ajatashatru's men were said to have fell like rocks on the army of Chetaka. This weapon was thus named "Mahasilakantaka", i.e. the weapon through which more than a lakh (1,00,000) people died. Next, the Indras granted a huge, automatically moving chariot with swinging spiked maces on each side, and said to have been driven by Charmendra himself, to Ajatashatru. The chariot moved about in the battlefield crushing lakhs of soldiers. This war-chariot was named Ratha-Musala.
In this battle, Chetaka was defeated. But, Chetaka and others immediately took shelter inside the city walls of Vaishali and closed the main gate. The walls around Vaishali were so strong that Ajatashatru was unable to break through them. Many days passed, Ajatashatru became furious and again prayed to Indra, but this time Indra refused to help him. But Ajatashatru was informed by an oracle of a demi-goddess "Vaishali can be conquered if Sramana (monk) Kulvalaka gets married to a courtesan."
Ajatashatru inquired about the monk Kulvalaka and sent for the prostitute Magadhika disguised as a devout follower. The fallen women attracted the monk towards herself and finally, the monk gave up his monkhood and married her. Later Magadhika on Ajatashatru's orders brainwashed Kulvalaka to enter Vaishali disguised as an astrologer. With great difficulty, he did enter Vaishali and learned that the city was saved by a Chaitya (altar) dedicated to Munisuvrata. Kulvalaka then started telling people that this altar is the reason why the city is suffering through a bad period. The people uprooted the altar from its very foundation. Kulvalaka gave a signal and Ajatashatru proceeded as per prior arrangement. This was the last attack. Vaishali was conquered by Ajatashatru.
Sechanaka the elephant died after it fell in a pit with iron rods and fire made by Ajatashatru's soldiers. Later Halla and Vihalla kumaras got initiated as monks in the holy order of Lord Mahavira. Chetaka courted Sallekahna(fasted unto death). Ajatashatru not only conquered Vaishali but also Kasi-Kosala. Manudev was a famous king of the illustrious Lichchavi clan of the confederacy, who desired to possess Amrapali after he saw her dance performance in Vaishali. After defeating the king, Ajatashatru was in a relationship with Amrapali.
The Buddhist tradition
There was a diamond mine near a village on the river Ganges. There was an agreement between Ajatashatru and the Licchavi of Vajji that they would have an equal share of the diamonds. Because of sheer lethargy, Ajatashatru failed to collect his own share, and the whole lot of diamonds was carried away by the Lichhavis. This happened many times, and at last, Ajatashatru got annoyed and thought, "it is almost impossible to fight against the whole confederacy of Vaishali. I must uproot these powerful Vajjis and exterminate them". He sent his chief minister Vassakara to Lord Buddha to ask him the purpose of Vaishali being invincible, to which Lord Buddha gave seven reasons which included Vajjis being punctual to the meetings, their disciplined behavior, their respect for elders, respect for women, they do not marry their daughters forcefully, they give spiritual protection to the Arhats, and the main reason was the Chaityas (altar) inside the town.
Thus, with the help of his chief minister Vassakara, Ajatashatru managed to split the Vajjis and also broke the chaityas inside. Ajatashatru used a scythed chariot with swinging mace and blades on both the sides and attacked the town and conquered it.
After conquering Vaishali, Kasi and Kosala (Kaushala) Ajatashatru conquered 36 republican states surrounding his kingdom and firmly established the predominance of Magadha. Ajatashatru was monarch of a huge kingdom, which covered almost all of modern India's Bihar, Chandigarh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, One fourth of north Madhya Pradesh, tip of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and west Bengal.
Ajatashatru, with the help of his two ministers Sunidha and Vassakāra, built a fort near the banks of the river Ganges to strengthen the defense of Magadha and named it Pātali Grama(village). Later it developed into a city, which soon became popular as Pataliputra, now known as Patna, the capital of Bihar.
According to Mahaparinirvana sutta, when Pataliputra was being erected, by chance the Buddha came there and praised the city of Pataliputra, and pointed to three things which could prove fatal to the city: fire, water, and discord among the people.
The Jaina tradition
According to the Nirayāvaliyā Suttā Ajatashatru was born to King Bimbisara and Queen Chellana, who was the daughter of Chetaka the king of Vaishali, who was the brother of Queen Triśalá, mother of Mahavira. Ajatashatru had eight wives.
The Buddhist tradition
According to Dīgha nikāya, Ajatashatru was born to King Bimbisara and Queen Kosala Devi, who was the daughter of Maha-Kosala, the king of Kosala and sister of Pasenadi who later succeeded to the throne. Ajatashatru had 500 wives but the principal consort was Princess Vajira. The City of Kasi was given to Bimbisara as dowry by Maha-Kosala. After the murder of Bimbisara, Prasenajit took the city back. This resulted in a war between Ajatashatru and Prasenajit, in which Prasenajit was first defeated but became successful later. As Ajatashatru happened to be his nephew his life was spared. In a peace treaty, Prasenajit married his daughter Vajira to him. Ajatashatru later had a son named Udayabhadda or Udayabhadra.
The account of Ajatashatru's death recorded by historians is c. 535 BCE. The account of his death differs widely between Jain and Buddhist traditions. Other accounts point towards c. 460 BCE as the year of his death.
The Jaina tradition
According to the Jaina text, Āvaśȳaka Chūrnī, Ajatashatru went to meet Lord Mahavira.
Ajatashatru asked, "Bhante! Where do Chakravartins (world-monarchs) go after their death?"
Mahavira replied that "A Chakravartin, if dying while in the office goes to the seventh hell called Mahā-Tamahprabhā, and if dying as a monk attains Nirvana."
Ajatashatru asked, "So will I Attain Nirvana or go to the seventh hell?"
Mahavira replied, "Neither of them, you will go to the Sixth hell."
Ajatashatru asked, "Bhante, then am I not a Chakravartin?",
to which Mahavira replied, "No, you are not."
This made Ajatashatru anxious to become a world-monarch. He created 12 artificial jewels and set out for the conquest of the six regions of the world. But when he reached the Timisra Caves he was stopped by a guardian Deva called Krutamāl who said, "Only a Chakravartin can pass through this cave, there can be not more than 12 Chakravartin in the half cycle of a Kalchakra, and already there have been 12." On this, Ajatashatru said arrogantly, "Then count me as the thirteenth and let me go or else my mace is strong enough to reach you to Yama." The Deva became enraged at Ajatashatru's arrogance and by his power, he reduced him to ashes right on the spot. Ajatashatru was then reborn in the sixth hell called Tamahprabhā.
The Buddhist tradition
Ajatashatru was brutally murdered by his own son, Udayabhadra, who was greedy of his kingdom. Ajatashatru was reborn in the hell called "Lohakumbhiya".
Although the account of Ajatashatru's death differs in these traditions, both believe that after passing through many births Ajatashatru will be born as a wise prince, and later become a monk and attain Nirvana.
Ajatashatru is mentioned in both Jaina and Buddhist traditions.
The Uvavai/Aupapātika sutta, which is the first Upānga (see Jain Agamas) of the Jains throws light on the relation between Mahavira and Ajatashatru. It accounts that Ajatashatru held Mahavira in the highest esteem. The same text also states that Ajatashatru had an officer to report to him about the daily routine of Mahavira. He was paid lavishly. The officer had a vast network and supporting field staff through whom he collected all the information about Mahavira and reported to the king. The Uvavai Sutta has detailed and illuminating discussion on Mahavira's arrival at the city of Champa, the honour was shown to him by Ajatashatru, the sermon given by Mahavira in Ardhamagadhi language, etc.
According to Buddhist tradition, the Samaññaphala Sutta deals with his first meeting with the Buddha, where he realized his mistakes with his association to Devadatta and plan to killing his own father. According to the same text, during this meeting, Ajatashatru took protection of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. He was mentioned more than once in several other Sutta as an example of strong devotee to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. He erected a vast Stupa on the bones and ashes of the Buddha after the funeral, and Ajatashatru also was present in the first Buddhist council at the Sattapanni (Saptparni) caves Rajgriha.
Whether Ajatashatru was a Jain or Buddhist, both texts accounted for him as a devotee of the respective religions.
Depictions in popular culture
- A fictionalised account of Ajatashatru – depicted as a physically gross and tyrannous figure , who delights in committing atrocities and massacres – appears in Gore Vidal's novel Creation.
- A movie about his life was released titled Ajatashatru. He also features as the protagonist in the film Amrapali (1966), starring Sunil Dutt and Vyjayanthimala.
- A book about his life was written titled Ajatashatru, by Subba Rao.